London's 10 Best Bars: Nothing Succeeds like Excess
By Arianna Reiche
London Local Expert
London has been perfecting the art of drinking for two millennia and counting. (We blame the Vikings.) Its late-night pubs and glittering lounges have been home to momentous bits of cultural history: They're where Shakespeare found inspiration, where Lenin met Stalin, and where The Sex Pistols first stepped onto stage. And that richness seeps its way into every posh lounge, gritty speakeasy, and skyscraping aerial watering hole you can come across, from Edgware to Tooting. Pair that with the new wave of nightlife innovators and you've got a city whose bar scene rivals Paris, Hong Kong, and -- dare we say it -- The Big Apple. Bar and mixology heavyweights like Byran Pietersen and Alex Kammerling have not simply been keeping up with trends, but redefining rules and setting new benchmarks for London nightlife. Not to put too fine a point on it, London's bars have never been so imaginative and refreshing, and no visitor to the city should miss out. Whether you're after the true aristocrat experience along the Strand, or cashing in your street cred down Hackney's shadowy crevices, we've painfully selected the ten bars to leave you with stars in your eyes (and quite possibly a pounding in your head come morning).
Beaufort at the Savoy
Nowhere else in the city so perfectly encapsulates London's pre-war extravagance like The Beaufort at The Savoy. You may go into a sensory coma upon entering (yes, that is £40,000 worth of gold leaf that you're looking at) but once you've settled in to the modern take on Art Deco opulence you may find it difficult to extricate yourself from that black velvet upholstery. The Beaufort in its newly refurbished form is a relatively new addition to the historic hotel, and its comeback reincorporated elements like the cabaret stage and a £60 glass of cuvee named after Sir Winston Churchill. The drinks are powerful and elegant (just like they liked 'em in the hotel's old-timey heyday) so if you want to keep your wits about you, go for a delicate cocktail like "Patience", which rings in at a mere £15 -- an absolute bargain. (Hah.) (020 7836 4343)
Gordon's Wine Bar
There may indeed be history in every nook and cranny of "London's oldest wine bar", but Gordon's needs no extra selling-points. Stepping inside its winding cave structure past a buffet of hot food hidden somehow stylishly beside their mountainous cache of wines (ordered, if you're a local, by the glass and in great volume) will be like nothing you've ever experienced. It may come as a shock that the bar, in its labyrinthine, hedonistic, antique-ey magic, is actually a bit tricky to find. Between the new chain take-aways on Villier's Street and the entrance to Victoria Embankment Gardens is what appears to be an alleyway. Follow the noise, head down the steps, and go for an Argentinian Malbec for, believe it or not, just £5.60. (0207 930 1408)
The Phene is a cozy, nook-hidden home to English classics with a swanky twist (think saucy chicken filo "pies" and a Bloody Mary fit for a queen). Get a cushioned corner seat by a heater outside in order to spy on all of Chelsea's bright young things who frequent the society pages: It's home to the borough's numerous fashionistas, Russian oligarchs, and reality television stars. Get tipsy on their extensive wine list (at £8 a glass their Alois Lageder Rain Vineyard Reisling is a steal) or try their Westborne Park, a delicate mix of Miller's Westbourne gin, "sacred rosehip", Martini Rosso, and cucumber. (020 7352 9898)
For those nights when you simply need your cocktails delivered in an antique belljar, delivered in a haze of pine-scented smoke, Purl is your sanctuary. Book out a sofa cave for an intimate night with friends, then mingle at the bar when Fitzrovia's staple producers, casting agents, and limelight hopefuls come out to unwind. Be sure to order the high-concept concoctions early on (think Apertif in a Bag: "Pampero Especial, Amaro del Capo, Aperol infused with liquorice root" wrapped up in a plastic sack). There's an otherworldly, exotic glamor to Purl that taps into the undiluted spirit of London nightlife. (020 7935 0835)
The Dalston Victoria
Art collective Jaguar Shoes became the harbingers of east London's hip-pocalypse when they opened up Shoreditch bar-shash-gallery Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes in 2002. With brand new concept-pub The Dalston Victoria, they've reinvented themselves for the Millennial pub-goer, especially as the "pub" functions as a music venue bar, and a fabulous one at that. Be sure to keep an ear to the ground; The Dalston Vic has started to rival G-A-Y for sheer volume of secret shows it hosts. Earlier this year Major Laser showed up for an impromptu Thursday night set, and they've got a solid rotation of native and international DJs. (07964857703)
Bourne & Hollingsworth Bar
You may not be able to tell if you're seated inside west London's hippest basement-level speakeasy, or in your Aunt Mabel's dining room. But be assured, the London leisure megastars behind Bourne & Hollingsworth have fitted their bar to be the shining jewel atop the long list of Fitzrovia's charming basement nook (and Aunt Mabel was never this hip). The wallpaper is pure Georgian chic, and the drinks are enough to fuel your Evelyn Waugh-era daydreams. The bar staff are friendly and willing to make you something bespoke, perhaps left undaunted by the occupancy: Unlike some of Fitzrovia's other posh watering holes, you won't get hundreds cramming in come quitting time. (0207 636 8228)
It's rare that a bar can make you feel both at the center of the action and hidden away from the world. The Bar at Madison's magic is that it's just that: whatever you want it to be, looking out on a city you can call your own (if only for a few hours). On top of The City's impressive One New Change building, Madison allows revelers to take in the city from six stories up. Peek into St Paul's cathedral while sipping a bellini before getting the magical glass lift back down to earth. Repeat these steps as needed for ultimate whimsy. (020 3693 5160)
184 Hackney Road
It takes will and determination to find Hackney's hippest mezcal spot -- but once you make it down those hidden steps, you're in for a night you'll never forget. 184 is intimate 00 a long room where you'll undoubtedly need to get your elbows out on a Friday or Saturday. And mezcal is, shall we say, not for everyone. Fermented from agave, it's got the lingering punch of tequila with a cumin-like earthiness. But once you've settled in, come to terms with the spirit on show, and started mingling with the graphic designers and artesanal brewers you're bound meet, you'll realize that there's nowhere you'd rather be on a weekend night out in the East End. It's a little taste of Mesoamerica an ocean away, and the prices make it worth the (somewhat epic) journey. (2076131745)
Hawksmoor Seven Dials
There is very little that Hawksmoor doesn't do right. Its five London locations specialize in different culinary areas (Air Street for seafood, Spitalfields for steak, as any local will tell you) and their Seven Dials, Covent Garden location will happily supply you with the kind of cocktails that will change your life. Their menu is divided by occasion and time of day, from "Pre-Prandials" to "Cards & Cigars". Try the Made Man, a concoction of rye, Fernet Branca, yellow chartreuse and cherry Heering that will put hair on your chest and a song in your heart. Book late to take in the after-theatre crowd. (020 7420 9390)
The Doodle Bar
Get your inner child out and ready to scribble at Battesea's whimsical Doodle Bar, where you can bounce between ping ping, doodlable walls, and tasty street food. Carry your drinks through the carefully curated brick-and-tin warehouse-chic spaces, people-watch on the patio, or play a spirited game of Hangman on one of the wall-lengthed chalkboards. (They're ideal for people-watching). The mix of art-school lightheartedness and open-doored airiness makes it the ideal retreat for a long day of sight-seeing or more stiff-lipped culture. Their gin selection is huge, so we say go for a negroni -- something colorful to match the surroundings. (0207 223 7115)
About Arianna Reiche
Arianna Reiche is a London-based writer and publisher. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied at the University of Edinburgh before working with Vice, New Scientist, McSweeney's, and Gawker Media. She first fell in love with London running errands during London Fashion Week in 2009, careening through the streets in an microscopic G-Wiz stylemobile.
Read more about Arianna Reiche here.